If you want to understand this year’s Grammy nominations, just look at the Recording Academy

Rachel Brodsky
·7-min read
The Weeknd was snubbed in the 2021 Grammy nominations (Getty Images for Victoria's Secret)
The Weeknd was snubbed in the 2021 Grammy nominations (Getty Images for Victoria's Secret)

For decades, the Grammy Awards have had a strained relationship with the very thing it purports to celebrate: music. Each autumn, the Recording Academy member-voted nominations roll out and, like clockwork, audiences and artists react to the various surprises and snubs with an outpouring of dismay and grudging approval.

This week’s 2021 nominations were no different, with elated reactions around the all-female Best Rock Performance nominations, as well as approval over well-deserved nods for Phoebe Bridgers, Fiona Apple, HAIM, Megan Thee Stallion and Dua Lipa. On the other hand, the 2021 nominations were met with outrage and confusion over the snubbing of The Weeknd, whose silky, synth-laden fourth album After Hours has been one of the biggest commercial and critical successes this year.

And that’s only scratching the surface: there was barely any recognition for K-pop kings BTS (they earned just one nomination for “Dynamite” in the Best Pop Duo / Group Performance category), and zero nods for zeitgeisty country standouts The Highwomen, The Chicks and Luke Combs. Also confounding was the lack of acknowledgment around posthumous releases from gone-too-soon hip-hop heavyweights Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD, and Mac Miller. That’s without even touching on the mess that is Album of the Year, a category that in 2021 will include Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift, Coldplay, Jacob Collier, HAIM, Post Malone, Jhené Aiko and Black Pumas. The latter, in particular, is controversial due to the fact that the album in question is a “deluxe” version of their self-titled debut, which was originally released in 2019.

Grammy nominations are always head-scratchers, that’s nothing new. And the Recording Academy is generally understood to have a tenuous-at-best grip on contemporary music. What makes 2021 a little different, though, is that this year the Academy is under more scrutiny than ever in the wake of movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. This year’s scattershot nominations list might as well be a mirror held up to the company’s apparent internal lack of direction.

In the last two years, the Academy has chafed harder against growing calls for inclusivity and diversity in music, a problem that has become more painfully obvious ever since former president and CEO Neil Portnow’s ill-advised suggestion that female artists “step up” if they want to be recognised in greater numbers. Since Portnow’s gaffe, the Academy has promised sweeping change and greater awareness. It launched a Women in the Mix initiative and a Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, and hired its first female CEO, Deborah Dugan.

Neil Portnow on 13 June 2019 in New York City.Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame
Neil Portnow on 13 June 2019 in New York City.Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame

But for every step forward, the non-profit stumbles back. After replacing Portnow with Dugan, the Academy came under fire once again, this time for suspending their new CEO a mere 10 days before the 2020 ceremony. The Academy tried to get ahead of the issue, claiming “misconduct by a senior female member of the Recording Academy team”, but Dugan shot back with an explosive discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that former president Portnow had raped a female artist, that she had been asked to hire him as a consultant for $750,000, and that the Academy's general counsel and former board chair, Joel Katz, sexually harassed her in May 2019 (Katz denied the claims against him). As if that wasn’t enough, Dugan also alleged that the Grammy nominating process itself was “rigged” and “corrupt”, allegations the Recording Academy vehemently denied. Portnow also categorically denied the sexual assault allegations Dugan made against him, calling them “false and outrageous”.

The Academy tried to pick up the pieces once again. Right now, the Recording Academy is led by interim President and CEO Harvey Mason Jr, a decorated producer who has worked with artists including Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson and Britney Spears, among others. Though Mason Jr never exactly asked to be in this position, in which he must captain the Academy through a sea of internal and external unrest, most can agree that he’s done a commendable job of smoothing things over. He has implemented an employee staff council, launched a Black Music Collective, clarified the Grammys’ historically opaque voting process, welcomed a diverse new membership class, and hired a Chief of Diversity and Inclusion. He even answered reporters’ calls when they want to know where on earth The Weeknd’s nominations were.

On the awards side of things, Black artists have won more Grammys and nominations than ever before, but they are continuously slotted into non-pop categories while the Academy itself grapples with appropriate genre terminology. (One working theory around The Weeknd’s lack of nominations has to do with whether voting members would classify him as more R&B or pop. After Hours is straightforward-as-can-be pop music, but that’s another conversation.)

“It sucks that whenever we – and I mean guys that look like me – do anything that's genre-bending or that's anything they always put it in a rap or urban category. I don't like that 'urban' word – it's just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me”, Tyler, the Creator said last year in the Grammys press room after accepting the award for Best Rap Album.

This year, the term “Urban” has been replaced by “Progressive”, and “World Music” has been swapped for “Global”, but, as Pitchfork points out, the fact that the separatist category exists at all looks tone deaf at best.

What’s more, two years ago, Kesha sang a tear-inducing rendition of “Praying” at the Grammys, and this year the song’s ostensible subject, the person she publicly accused of rape and abuse, is up for Record of the Year (Dr Luke, real name Lukasz Gottwald, is now working under the name Tyson Trax and worked on Doja Cat’s “Say So”. He has consistently denied the allegations made by Kesha).

Indeed, despite all of the flashy new committees and promises to read the room, the Recording Academy itself still lacks a cohesive direction. Outside the organisation, we get PR-approved messaging that the Recording Academy cares about all musicians, is learning and growing, and that there are simply too many artists and not enough actual trophies. But internally, as we just saw with The Weeknd’s lack of recognition, the voting process still seems very political. What’s more, there is still no permanent CEO (and it’s unlikely there’ll be one until after the 2021 show has run), staff turnover at the highest level is rare and what little turnover does exist is usually a reshuffling of the same top players. Yes, there’s a new, more diverse membership class and chief of diversity and inclusion officer but – other than approving language and sitting in on meetings – what are these new faces really allowed to do other than show up?

“The folks who control [the Grammys] are mostly old, rich, white, male executives with corporate agendas who look at these awards like toys and trinkets”, Public Enemy’s Chuck D told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “They can’t just talk about diversity – be it racial, gender, genre, and everything in between – or post a few words about it on social media or a website and call it a day. They need to live it, act on it, and embody it, and it needs to be done in the light, not in the shadow meetings and boardrooms with the doors locked up tight.”

As the Academy scrambles over and over to appear forward-thinking and retain relevance in an era where music consumption, creation, and promotion evolves faster than ever, clearly a slothful institution like this one is doomed to play an eternal game of catch-up. And until they do, don’t expect the Grammy nominations to align with consumers’, or artists’, expectations.

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